10 things: Raptors continue to battle contenders despite being shorthanded

Tyler Herro dropped 23 points off the bench while Jimmy Butler recorded a triple-double, and the Miami Heat defeated the Toronto Raptors 104-99.

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 104-99 loss to the Miami Heat.

One -- The Raptors battled another championship contender right until the final whistle. It was yet another all-out effort by the Raptors who shortened their rotation to six players for the second consecutive game, but came up short on a few key possessions at the end. Toronto's defence has held strong in three games against Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Miami with most of their core pieces healthy and available, and that has to signal to the front office that this team is worth investing in, both in terms of time to grow, and with more help to address the depth. This was billed as a development year, but each of their five core players have made tangible strides this year, and are now going punch for punch with the top teams in the league.

Two -- The result was decided by a few key sequences in the fourth quarter. First, the Raptors lost momentum after Caleb Martin tackled an airborne Scottie Barnes on a coast-to-coast dunk, which was ruled as a common foul even upon review. Martin went on to score two layups, and had a baseline kick to Max Strus on an open three which put Miami ahead. The Raptors then locked in defensively, limited the Heat to without a field goal for a four-minute stretch, but a string of bad decisions from Barnes undercut the comeback. Whether you chalk these up to fatigue from running such a tight rotation, to a case of rookie mistakes, or just simply over the course of a highly contested game, there is still a feeling of regret that hangs over this result. Much like their loss to Phoenix, the Raptors arguably outplayed Miami but came away empty.

Three -- Miami's main advantage was their depth. The Raptors had Chris Boucher as their super-sub to match the electric scoring ability of Tyler Herro, but Nick Nurse didn't trust anyone else to play after Justin Champagnie dislocated his finger in the first half. Miami's second unit delivered huge plays, including Martin's fourth quarter push, the late three from Strus, and the physical presence of 7-foot veteran Dewayne Dedmon who had eight points, nine rebounds, and three blocks in 16 minutes. The Heat also got decent scoring punch from Gabe Vincent, who is typically their backup point guard except he filled in for Kyle Lowry's absence. Compare that to the options at Nurse's disposal, where he knows that he can't trust any of his secondary guys to fill in minutes. Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton need G-League reps, Svi Mykhailiuk and Yuta Watanabe can't buy a three nor create offence for themselves, and Gary Trent Jr. remains sidelined with ankle issues, so Nurse's hands are tied. The more he extends the rotation, the more likely the Raptors lose, whereas it's the opposite for Erik Spoelstra in Miami.

Four -- Pascal Siakam is playing better than his All-Star season. There's a maturity to Siakam's game where he is unfazed by intense and swarming defences. He knows he can get to his spots, but he's so much more calculated in his approach where he's anticipating the double team, where it's coming from, drawing the pressure to him, before setting up his teammates with the right pass. He record 10 assists for the second consecutive game without a single turnover despite being hounded by the likes of P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo, and Siakam was also able to break through the Heat's zone which was specifically designed to keep him out of the lane. At this level, Siakam is the Raptors' first option and best player overall, and if he maintains this level of play, the Raptors will make the playoffs and compete with anybody.

Five -- Fred VanVleet played more without the ball than he did with it. The matchup for VanVleet was difficult with the Heat assigning the bigger and stronger Jimmy Butler onto him, while also collapsing in the paint, which saw the sure-handed VanVleet get smothered repeatedly in the lane for five turnovers. So instead, the Raptors had VanVleet playing more away from the play, opting instead to go through their forwards, with VanVleet being the outlet option for threes, which resulted in VanVleet taking 16 threes and just one two, which was a mid-range jumper that he hit against a backpedaling defender. VanVleet's best matchups are against teams with like-sized guards and traditional centres to attack in pick-and-roll, but the off-ball role fits him better against opponents with lots of wings and fast bigs like the Heat.

Six -- The Raptors ran a very interesting play in the final minute of the game. After the timeout, the Raptors inbounded to Boucher in the middle of the floor, who immediately pitched it back to Siakam who was the inbounder, who then swung to OG Anunoby. VanVleet started in the backcourt for the first few seconds, but was able to run in behind and catch and shoot from 35 feet out as the Heat were a half step late in rotating. On the surface, it's absurd to call plays for a player to shoot from a foot on the logo, but that's where VanVleet's range is at the moment. He spends time before each game practicing his footwork on semi-contested logo threes, and he's hitting them at a rate better than most players right at the line. It speaks to the strengthening of his lower body and his core to be able to generate so much power to stay accurate from that far out, and it's one of the things that makes him especially dangerous as an off-ball player.

Seven -- Anunoby needs to improve as the third option. Anunoby has the tools to be effective playing off the catch while others initiate, but he keeps running into issues on drives where he is trying to create for himself. The trend of late has been to play Anunoby straight up, to bring help at the rim, but to mostly guard him one-on-one on the perimeter, and he hasn't made enough plays to capitalize. Anunoby battled foul trouble which limited his playing time in the first half, but he finished with 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting while getting blocked and stripped on a number of his plays. The ability is there for him to succeed in this role, but he needs more reps to read where the help defence is coming from, to make his moves quicker and more decisively, and to be stronger at the basket. There's enough there between his post-up ability and the outside shooting.

Eight -- Barnes played a good game overall but committed a few costly errors. One, he failed to execute a 2-on-1 fast break with Pascal Siakam in a three-point game, where Barnes was too slow to give the ball back to Siakam which allowed Vincent to take the intentional foul to stop the play instead of the Raptors dunking the ball to cut the lead to one in the final minute. Then on the ensuing defensive possession, Barnes got too close to Butler, and angled his body to invite him to drive, which allowed Butler to shoot downhill forcing Boucher to leave the corner shooter in Tucker who nailed the three to go up six. Not only was Barnes in the wrong position, but he also failed to close out to the corner to help the helper in Boucher who rotated over to cover for him. These small details will ultimately decide close games, and it's only natural for Barnes to still be picking up the nuances given that he's a rookie.

Nine -- Boucher and Precious Achiuwa have been excellent role players. The two forward consistently provide energy, shot-blocking, and rebounding in the middle which has given the Raptors stability in the paint which forms the basis of their defence. Offensively, Boucher in particular has found the right balance between being opportunistic with his chances and occasionally calling his own number, while Achiuwa is still struggling with it. Neither player is polished offensively, per se, but Boucher does finish reliably around the basket whereas Achiuwa is unsure and often wasteful down low. Achiuwa also takes more liberties on offence, opting to post up or try to initiate when it's not his turn to, but it's a good sign that he's ambitious. The coaching staff has found the right roles for them, and in the case of Achiuwa, the challenge is now getting him to maximize it.

Ten -- The front office needs to address the bench. Nurse doesn't trust anyone outside of Boucher and limited doses from Champagnie, and for good reason. Watanabe may come around but for now he's out, and Nurse doesn't like any of his backup guards. The one beneficiary of this has been the defensive upside to putting so much length on the perimeter with forwards playing as guards, but the downside is a lack of shooting. Trent Jr. helps in this regard, but no playoff team will ever run with a rotation of only two guards. With Boucher playing as well as he is, the Raptors can either use him as a trade chip to balance the roster or decide to keep him since he's been vital off the bench, otherwise their best bet is to use the expiring deal of Goran Dragic and future picks to land someone. With how hard this team is competing, it would be a shame not to send reinforcements.

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